Writing the All-time Bestselling Novel

Years ago while I was writing some little Star Wars books for Scholastic, my editor, David Levithan called and said that his boss loved my work, so she wanted to know if I would be willing to look at some novels and help them pick a book to push big during the coming year.

I said, “Sure,” and Scholastic sent me about 40 books in a couple of boxes, and I searched through them. I was looking for something specific.

First, I wanted a book that could be translated into multiple mediums—movies, television, videogames, and more.

I wanted something that would appeal to a huge audience, and I had some guidelines for what would work.


  1. I wanted a story that transported the reader into another world—not just any world, but one where the reader would want to stay.
  2. I wanted a story that appealed to a huge audience—male and female, old and young.
  3. I was searching for a story that hit the proper emotional appeals for each of its target audiences, so I wanted it to be strong in wonder, adventure, humor, horror, and mystery.
  4. I was also looking for something that had a strong payoff, that aroused such powerful emotions so that the reader, when finished, would want to grab a friend and tell them about the book.


So I looked through the offerings and found one that fit the bill. I asked my wife to look at it first (since I wanted to see how an older woman would react to it), and soon my wife and my ten-year-old daughter were fighting over the book to see who would read it first. Afterward, I called the managing editor at Scholastic and told her, “I think that you should go for this novel Harry Potter.

Her first response was, “But . . . the marketing department hates Harry Potter.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because it’s too long for a middle-grade novel,” she said. “They’re worried that kids won’t read it.”

So we had a long talk in which I explained that any time that you have a novel that seeks to transport a reader to another time and another place, you’re going to have to spend a bit of extra time describing the world, explaining the rules of the science or magic systems, and so on. I assured her that even though the novel was “too long” for its readers, and was indeed written at a vocabulary that was “too advanced,” the novel would do fine for several reasons, and we proceeded to make plans on how to promote the book and push it big.

Well, the novel series went on to make a billion dollars for its author, and became a bestselling book of all time.

But the question I sometimes get is, “Is it possible to beat Harry Potter?

My answer is, “Of course it’s possible.” But how? Rowling is a genius at audience analysis, so writing a book that has an even larger audience appeal would be just about impossible. But it is possible.

I give a bunch of clues as to how to go about it in my book Million Dollar Outlines, which is available through Wordfire Press.

It will do all of the things that I was looking for in Harry Potter, but there are some things that could be added to good effect.

As a character, Harry was dealt with pretty much perfectly. But I’ve always felt that some of the secondary characters might be dealt with a bit more effectively.

For example, if you wanted to attract young female readers, expanding the role of your female lead might help, particularly if you added a bit more romance.

The real struggle becomes, “How do you hold your core audience—the younger teens while still appealing to older readers?” Much of that will require some taut pacing and brilliant writing at the level of description and character voices, but it can be done.

So, I can’t tell you exactly what the book that beats Harry Potter’s numbers will be about. You’ll have to create your own vivid, lovable world and characters. So get to work!


Storytelling as a Fine Art (Live Workshop) – Aug. 1st – 5th, Layton, Utah.
Most authors want to do more than just make money. They’re struggling to communicate their thoughts beautifully. But how do you do that in a story?  In this workshop, Dave would like to create an intimate environment where individual students will receive ample time for one-on-one interaction and critiques. Dave will be spending personal time with each student. Because of that, we will be strictly limiting the number of students allowed to attend to 10. Register today and save your spot.

One thought on “Writing the All-time Bestselling Novel

  1. Joe L Layden

    Thank you Dave!
    You’re such a force in speculative fiction, if I were an agent I’d keep a close eye on what you had to say about emerging authors and books. It’s sometimes frustrating to me that modern lit agents aren’t always /necessarily looking for the same things you list. I get the sense they don’t care as much whether it can be translated to film…especially whether it can be translated to TV, because no one seems to want multiple POVs or “trilogies” from a new author. No problem though – I’ll go back to the shed, pay my dues and write a one or two POV novel for them first.

    But I wanted to ask about a different series. Game of Thrones doesn’t have near the audience appeal as Harry Potter since it’s not for kids, and so hasn’t garnished as much profit. However, it’s gone way beyond adult fantasy’s normal demographic.
    I’m ordering Million Dollar Outlines straightaway, but my audience is more niche like Game of Thrones. Is there anything I should keep in mind when appealing to this audience as opposed to a broader audience like that of Harry Potter? My goal is Game of Thrones – like success because I’ve been taught to aim for the sky!
    Thanks in advance and your tips are incredible – can’t wait for the next!


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